There was a time when the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph hid from responsibility for the child sex abuse done by some of its priests.
On Sunday, that attitude of contempt was put to rest.
Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. laid out his vision for the diocese during a Service of Lament at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
A “visible, permanent reminder” will be dedicated to the victims, a marker that will be decided upon by a remembrance committee, comprised partly of survivors of the abuse.
A new team will assess best practices for reporting and dealing with suspected abuse. The diocese already has a set of strict protocols, but they will be measured for effectiveness and reassessed for any changes necessary to improve.
Priests and lay staff will be trained how to better respond if someone discloses any inappropriate behavior that has occurred, or suspicions. This is more of a pastoral response and goes beyond the mandatory reporting requirements and other policies that are already emphasized in new procedures.
Specifically, the training is to ensure that the disbelief suffered by so many victims will not happen again.
Finally, a day of prayer will be dedicated every year in April, during National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Johnston made the announcements during the later portion of the service. All are tangible examples of how he wants the diocese to function going forward. But the service was predominantly intended for the bishop to apologize for the abuse, to acknowledge the pain of so many victims, reaching back decades.
Johnston apologized not only for the sexual abuse, but for the inaction that came from the diocese when it was confronted. He noted the damage to all priests who subsequently fell under suspicion and doubt. And he recognized the harm caused to the entire community of local Catholics.
“There are no quick fixes,” Johnston emphasized in his homily, repeatedly admitting that he does not profess to know all of the appropriate answers. Rather, he said the diocese will seek “to create space and opportunities for grace to enter.”
“I promise to continue listening,” Johnston said. The protection of children will be a core value for the diocese, he said.
Statements from victims, comments about the shame they felt, the trust they lost, their search for healing, were read aloud. During that portion of the service, Bishop Johnston lay prostrate at the altar.
Those present were asked to write a personal petition; a prayer or statement of pain or hope, on a sheet of paper that was included in the afternoon’s program. People placed the petitions into a glass bowel at the altar. They were blessed and will be sealed later into a wooden box.
Toward the end of the service, Johnston told those gathered that he’d been more nervous for Sunday, than he had been for his installation ceremony as bishop last fall. That’s an admittance to the gravity of the abuse, the enormous challenge of meeting the needs of victims.
“I don’t have all of the answers,” Johnston told the people who filled the pews of the cathedral.
In asking for forgiveness, Johnston said that forgiving is an act of courage and grace and ultimately is done as part of healing for the person harmed. “Forgiving does not mean forgetting the terrible wreckage our sins have caused,” Johnston said.
Johnston also offered praise for the four-woman staff that leads the diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection, noting their fierce dedication to keeping children safe.
Dozens of priests and deacons wearing vestments of purple to signify penance, processed into the cathedral at the opening of the service and exited in the same manner at its conclusion. At the end of the long line of clergy was Johnston.
It was a moving demonstration of contrition. But the sheer number of clergy present also signified the resolve, the strength of the diocese.
God seeks truth. In putting its sins on such public display, its remorse at the mercy of the victims, the diocese took a step seeking the grace of redemption.